Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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The Mandate of Heaven Volume 51 Number 2, March/April 1998
by David W. Pankenier

[image] The five visible planets--Saturn, Venus, Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter--were believed to be the ministers of Shangdi, the Lord on High. Their conjunction in the predawn sky of February 1953 B.C. was thought to indicate Shangdi's conferral of the right to rule on the Xia Dynasty. (Brian Sullivan; data from Evans & Sutherland Digistar II Projector) [LARGER IMAGE]

For early Chinese rulers, observing the heavens and communicating the passage of time to the people were divine obligations, which accounts for a preoccupation with astronomy, astrology, and calendrical science throughout Chinese history, and explains why the ability to predict celestial events came to be seen as a barometer of a dynasty's success. The correct orientation of any consecrated space, the scheduling of religious ceremonies, and the proper conduct of seasonal occupations all depended on the king. The ability to comprehend the celestial patterns (e.g., seasonal constellations) and to maintain conformity between astral and terrestrial realms became a fundamental qualification for kingship. To mistime sacrifices to the ancestors or natural powers would surely invite disaster. Hence, Heaven's ancient mandate, first explicitly set forth by Zhou Dynasty rulers in the mid-eleventh century B.C. and preserved in the canonical Book of Documents (ca. sixth century B.C.), exhorted China's rulers to "observe the Heavenly images and communicate the seasons to the people."

David W. Pankenier is associate professor of Chinese at Lehigh University.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America